The first stage of the Tour of California in May will start and finish in downtown Santa Rosa, the first glimpse of the route of eight-day cycling event that has become the nation's most prestigious road race.

"We are moving forward with the festival and finish line as in previous years being downtown," Raissa de la Rosa, a city of Santa Rosa economic development specialist and organizer of the event locally, said Monday.

This year, Santa Rosa was skipped as a host city for the first time in the race's six-year history, but with the promise that Santa Rosa in 2012 would host the high-profile first stage, which includes a week-long festival and pre-race events.

There had been was some consideration to moving the race route and its accompanying festival outside of the downtown area to a park, such as A Place to Play in West Santa Rosa, to avoid the disruption of closing streets and taxing available parking.

The tour, which draws the top international teams and riders, will start in Santa Rosa on May 13, a Sunday, and ends May 20.

The other cities that will be stops in the race will be disclosed within the next few weeks and the precise stage routes in April, said Chuck Hodge, of Medalist Sports in Atlanta, Ga., who is laying out the course.

The Tour of California is owned by AEG Sports of Los Angeles and again is being sponsored by Amgen, a biotech company.

Hodge did not confirm the Santa Rosa race would begin and finish downtown.

Sonoma County is unusual in that it has steep and winding roads into the hills as well as flat and rolling terrain, vineyards, dairies and the ocean, all of which will all be thrown into mix for a race that will provide the necessary competitive difficulty but also show off California, Hodge said.

"That is the nice thing about Sonoma County, there is so much variety from the competition side and from what we want to capture on the camera side," Hodge said. "It's an embarrassment of riches."

Santa Rosa merchants said there is an advantage to having downtown a featured part of the race. As many as 35,000 spectators have been drawn to the downtown for the race finish.

"It is a huge benefit for my business," Natalie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewery, "but I also sell beer."

"People come in and have a beer, run outside and watch it go by, come back inside and have another beer," she said.

Cilurzo said, however, that all downtown restaurants and bars benefit from the the race.

"It brings a ton of people downtown, that's the best thing," said Stu Patterson, a partner in Flavor, a restaurant on Old Courthouse Square.

Mick Loveland, owner of a violin repair shop in the second floor of 816 Fourth St., supports the tour downtown because of the popularity of cycling in Sonoma County, even though he knows it will basically shut his business down on race day.

"I love it when they hold the tour; it is a great event," Loveland said. "It is probably not good for my business, customers can't get here, but they'll come back another time."

Santa Rosa organizers are working to raise the $550,500 it costs to host the first stage, which is more expensive than past stages, which cost $175,000. Most other stages feature one city for the start and another for the finish

It includes providing three days of lodging and meals for the race teams and support staff, instead of one, plus such things as the porta-potties, road services and garbage collection.

So far they have raised $225,000 and are now starting to make a big push to solicit local businesses, de la Rosa said. The cost has to be paid with private donations because the City Hall has specifically prohibited any general fund money from being spent.

The big donors so far are VeloStreet, pro racer Levi Leipheimer's non-profit that runs the King Ridge GranFondo, $120,000, Santa Rosa's Business and Improvement District, $100,000, and Russian River Brewery, $5,000.

De la Rosa said that they need to raise another $225,000 in cash and $100,000 in donated goods, such as wine and services.